Italy is home to the world's oldest university - the University of Bologna, founded in 1088 - and its historic institutions are credited with initiating the Renaissance. The country has also produced some of the world's most influential thinkers, from Roman philosopher Cicero and medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, to Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, political philosopher NiccolÃ² Machiavelli, and astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei. But access to education was restricted and illiteracy in southern and rural regions of Italy remained high well into the twentieth century.
Today, approximately 60 per cent of Italians aged 20 to 24 are enrolled in tertiary education, according to data gathered by the European Commission. But, with a high dropout rate of 60 per cent, only 17 per cent of Italians hold a university degree - well below the OECD average of 33 per cent. Furthermore, university enrolment continues to vary considerably between regions. In northern and central parts of Italy more than 75 per cent of university-aged people are enrolled on a course, whereas in the south of the country it's much lower, at around 40 per cent.
The responsibility for universities in Italy lies primarily with the national government and the overwhelming majority of the country's 89 universities are public institutions, funded by the state. As a result, tuition fees are kept low. But universities retain the right to set their own fees, so the cost of studying for a degree varies according to the institution, the course - with sciences and medical degrees generally more expensive than those in humanities or social studies - and the annual income of each student's family. The amount a student has to pay to study is calculated on a means-tested basis related to their family's wealth and, in practice, they pay between â‚¬850 and â‚¬1,000 (£700 to £850) per year.
Because the government heavily subsidises universities, student loans aren't available in Italy and it's expected that each student's family will foot the bill for their education. Italian students avoid graduating with a mountain of debt, but it also means that their choice of university and course is dependent on what their family can afford. Alba de Luca, a student from Naples who studied materials engineering at the University of Naples Federico II, says: "Most Italian students expect to study at a local university in the city they come from so they can live at home with their family and save money. Erasmus schemes are popular so students can have the experience of moving away from home for a few months."
Although the Italian government funds undergraduate degrees, Alba says there's very little investment in postgraduate research, which prompted her to complete her PhD in bio-medicine at the University of Manchester. She adds: "As a result of the economic crisis we're having in Italy, the government is cutting funding for education and it's causing a lot of problems for the universities."
Hit the books
Education in Italy is compulsory for children aged six to 15. Entry to university is gained on successful completion of high school at age 19, and many of the more prestigious universities also require students to sit admissions tests. University education has three cycles, the first of which is an undergraduate bachelor's degree that lasts for three years. The second cycle is a two year-long postgraduate degree, which Alba explains is "more like a second undergraduate degree" than a masters in the UK, and the final cycle is a research-based PhD, which involves a minimum of three years of study.
Italian degrees, whether scientific or artistic, are based on the study of academic theory rather than gaining practical experience or developing transferable skills - a difference which struck Alba when she first arrived in Manchester. She explains: "English students are very confident in the laboratory because they've had lots of practice. In Italy, our degrees are more theoretical and we study the theory from books. We gain very good background knowledge, but then when I moved into the lab I didn't really know what to do." The structure of undergraduate degree courses is also more intensive in Italy and Alba explains that for her bachelor's degree, she "went to university every single day and [was in] classes for about eight hours each day" and adds that it was important to attend every class.
Nevertheless, Burhan Khadbai, a second year student at the University of Manchester who completed a summer programme at the University of Bologna last year, found the atmosphere at Bologna "more laid-back compared to the British university system." He continues: "The environment is quite casual and the lecturers have a more sociable relationship with their students. The classes are very small in size, with just 10-12 students, and the student community is very integrated."
Most university courses are assessed by formal examinations, but Italian students are under less pressure to achieve a particular result because these exams can be taken whenever the student feels ready - not necessarily at the end of their course - and they can be repeated as many times as the student wishes without unwanted marks being recorded on their final degree transcript.
Out on the town
Academics take precedence over extra-curricular activities at Italian universities, but enjoying student life is still important. "In Naples, students go out a lot," says Alba. "But it's not just about going to a pub or a club - students go out into the streets and fill the squares where they have a drink and just talk. Even during the week, you'll always find lots of students in the city centre in the evening." Burhan agrees that in Bologna, the student culture was more about enjoying the city's traditional way of life and delicious food than nightlife in the British sense. Student societies are also less important to university life in Italy, says Alba: "I'd never heard about so many societies until I moved to the UK. Italian universities have sports teams, but that's about it." Consequently, applying for jobs comes down to academic achievement and work experience rather than having an array of extra-curricular activities on your CV.
The Italian economy is struggling as a result of the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone and youth unemployment stands at 31 per cent, with far fewer jobs available for university graduates than in the past. Yet internships are uncommon in Italy and Alba says "few companies advertise for interns, so the responsibility lies with the student to organise something themselves if that's what they want to do." Furthermore, because exams can be taken at any time, Alba says: "I don't think students feel the pressure to look for a job at the moment because they can extend their degree for as long as they want. Especially if they can live at home with their parents, they don't really care about entering the job market."